Last month, a group of 20 retired generals, 80 officers, and a thousand lower-ranking officers in the French army signed an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron. The letter laments the rise in crime and general dysfunction plaguing France, which the writers attribute to the influx of Muslim immigrants. Polls indicate that the majority of their countrymen agree with this assessment. For his part, Macron has already taken action, disciplining 18 serving officers who signed the letter.
The mix of frankness, nostalgia, cultural pride, and pessimism expressed in the letter is unmistakably French. However, many conservative Americans would likely agree that their own country is suffering from many of the same problems. There’s a general perception that the country is in decline and that the rule of law is threatened. To make matters worse, the nation’s elites now seem to take an anti-patriotic stance and exploit these anarchic movements for their own gain.
Nevertheless, there are still important differences between France and the U.S. Just as the yellow jacket protests were about more than high gas prices, the French frustration in this open letter is about more than immigration. It is about what France has become: an otherwise small and insignificant nation haunted by a glorious past. While there have been rises in violent crime and social unrest that correlate with the increase of mostly North African Muslim immigrants, this is often exaggerated and doesn’t actually account for country’s current woes.
Rather, France’s problem is, and always has been, its bloated welfare system, which is listed as the most generous in the world. The French pay high taxes and expect a wide array of public services in return. Unsurprisingly, this system has led to the government going into massive debt to continue funding these entitlements and has greatly hindered the country’s economy. Meanwhile, the population continues to grow older and retire while birthrates fall well below replacement level.
Less measurable but more profound is the effect that France’s welfare state has had on its culture. “Entrepreneur” may be a French word, but it’s an utterly foreign concept to most Frenchmen. Most of them now depend heavily on the state for everything, including comfortable employment. And if they don’t receive a certain benefit from the state, they will strike and protest at a moment’s notice. Most of them couldn’t care less that this attitude ruins their economy, bankrupts their government, and makes everyone poorer in the long run. If it’s a choice between social benefits and their country’s well-being, the former always wins.
This culture of dependency accounts for most of the rising resentment against immigrants. While the French right likes to speak in terms of tradition and French values (as the generals’ letter puts it, “our ancient civil and military glories”), the argument that animates most French nativists is that immigrants take more from the system than they contribute. They are seen as parasites mooching off of government while they live in segregated, crime-infested banlieues. It doesn’t help that most immigrant neighborhoods are massive eyesores.
It’s worth mentioning here that American conservatives should reconsider their support of presidential candidates like Marine Le Pen. Although she characterizes her opposition to immigration as patriotic, it is really more socialist. If she or another person from her party actually succeeded in winning the presidency (unlikely), little would change about France except that it might take in fewer immigrants.
Similarly, if certain members of the French military staged a coup and deported every immigrant (even more unlikely), France’s ongoing decrepitude would continue apace. So long as French citizens depend on their government for everything and see little reason to start their own businesses, be their own bosses, and compete for customers, nothing will change. Immigrants didn’t kill their country; the welfare state did.
My father (a very proud Frenchman) left France because of this pervasive culture of pettiness and mediocrity. His colleagues and family members complained constantly (to be fair, this is a popular French pastime), thought more about their upcoming vacations than their actual work, and could never bring themselves to resist the bureaucratic state.
Although he held a degree from one of France’s top universities and enjoyed a prominent position at the Banque Nationale de Paris, he knew his sons would have few opportunities growing up. If they were lucky, they could become well-respected fonctionnaires like he was, playing the game to climb the corporate/political ladder. But they would always be under someone else and never experience fulfillment or much freedom in their work. Inevitably, they would be intellectually and spiritually stifled.
My father was prescient. Even though he personally suffered from making the move to the U.S., his sons did grow up to be successful professionals, finding careers that suited their passions and talents. Had he stayed, we’d probably be joining those names on that letter, angry at the lack of prospects and at where our country is headed.
Unfortunately, while Americans are not so far along in becoming a welfare state like France, they do have reason to worry. With COVID prompting the issuance of multi-trillion dollar “relief packages,” Americans are quickly becoming dependent on government largesse. Even with states reopening, many employers are struggling to find workers because they can’t compete with the government paying people so much money, through expanded unemployment insurance, to do nothing. Moreover, the inflation that has resulted from printing more dollars to finance Biden’s spending continues to lower the buying power of most Americans, making them all the more dependent on government assistance.
This is how the welfare state begins. Over time, the number of businesses and workers will decrease while the number of welfare recipients will increase. Eventually, a corporatist system will arise where the government and a few favored companies are the main employers as well as the main customers. As these entities grow larger, the freedom and influence of average Americans will become smaller. By the time this becomes apparent for most people, it will be too late.
To put it another way, Americans tomorrow will be like the French today: people with a magnificent past and a disappointing present. To avoid such a fate, it is now essential to avoid taking the easy money and using non-Americans as scapegoats. As with most things, the path to a strong, free society is hard work. So long as Americans remember this, they will continue to be the leading nation of the world and an example for other nations that have lost their way.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an MA in Humanities and an MEd in Educational Leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for the Federalist, the American Thinker, Crisis magazine, The American Conservative, and the Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.